Voters in ‘forgotten Carmarthenshire’ quiz Cilycwm candidates
Hustings for a council by-election? Would people care enough to come along? In Carmarthenshire’s Cilycwm ward electors do care, and on Wednesday evening (Sep 14) more than 60 sat attentively in Llanwrda village hall to hear and question the candidates in next Thursday’s (Sep 22) election for a seat on the county council. (See the Carmarthenshire Herald, September 16, p.6)
Five of the seven candidates seeking to replace the late Tom Theophilus made it to the platform: Maria Carroll (Labour), Steven Holmes (Conservative), Catherine Nakielny (Liberal Democrat), Matthew Paul (Independent, although he stood as a Conservative in the 2015 general election and this year’s Welsh Assembly election) and Jacqui Thompson (People First). The two who did not attend were farmers Arwel Davies (Independent), due to an emergency, and Dafydd Tomos (Plaid Cymru), because of an important prior commitment. Both sent their apologies, relayed by the chairman, Rev. Roger Thomas, vicar of Llansadwrn and Llanwrda in Cilycwm ward, and of Manordeilo in an adjacent ward.
Speeding traffic, protection for the recycling centre at Llangadog, encouragement for local businesses, and settling more Syrian refugees were topics of concern for voters, alongside a widespread feeling of living in “forgotten Carmarthenshire”, as Llanwrda garage owner and railway historian Richard Rees put it. Somewhat surprisingly in an area with many Welsh speakers, the proceedings were all in English.
The candidates agreed on many topics. Cilycwm ward needs better broadband and mobile phone coverage, safer roads, and more career opportunities for young people. The Llangadog recycling centre is an important local asset. Carmarthenshire could do more for refugees. Points of disagreement were few and subtle, such as the priority to be given to cutting council tax. Given the already huge pressures on the county council’s budget, and deep cuts in education and social care, scope to reduce council tax is clearly limited. Steven Holmes would aim for a freeze. Matthew Paul, Jacqui Thompson and Catherine Nakielny would campaign against expenditure on wasteful “vanity projects” such as Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli. Maria Carroll, who pointed out that she has experience of managing large budgets in the NHS, would invest for economic growth to increase prosperity in the county.
One voter asked what the candidates would do to prevent a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs at Westminster, a question prompted by the Boundary Commission’s proposal to cut the number of Welsh constituencies from 40 to 29. Maria Carroll, who argued that the plan is based on incorrect figures of elector numbers, urged everyone to read and respond to the consultative document. For Matthew Paul, fewer MPs would not be a problem if devolution was in better health and the UK was progressing towards a federalised structure but in his view “devolution is in a mess”. Both Steven Holmes and Catherine Nakielny stressed that a county councillor’s primary task is to listen to and represent local people.
Electors have a difficult choice between the seven candidates. Every one of the five present at the hustings has particular strengths. Maria Carroll said she is local, keen to promote neighbourliness, and has managed large budgets. Catherine Nakielny, a recent past chair of the Farmers’ Union of Wales Carmarthenshire branch, is knowledgeable about agricultural politics and farming – the backbone industry in this rural area. Steven Holmes is a new voice with “no baggage”, as he expressed it, but with the full support of the Welsh Conservatives. Matthew Paul, an experienced barrister in public, regulatory and administrative law, is “like a dog with a bone” when tackling problems, and he knows how local government works. As for community councillor Jacqui Thompson, she is a survivor of bruising encounters with County Hall and has been instrumental in opening up the workings of the county council to greater public scrutiny and accountability.